This year Shavuot coincides with the end of the school year, the end of the fiscal year, and, for our family, the end of living in the home that we have occupied for the past seven years. Past are the trials and triumphs of acquiring new knowledge and navigating challenging social situations in the previous school year; present are the last appeals for gifts before July 1; and the future is unknown for how it will feel to walk away from the home that has witnessed so many firsts in our family: the first time our sons met each other after our second son was born, the first Havdalah when the sons commenced the ritual of adding tasting to the smelling of the spices, the first family movie night when everyone actually agreed on the same movie. Even in the excitement of the firsts of the coming year, letting go of the place that held the firsts of yesteryear is difficult.
In some ways, the biblical custom of offering the first fruits on Shavuot seems to acknowledge this. The ritual as described in Deuteronomy 26 includes a storytelling mechanism that allows the person offering the fruits to share the challenges and feats of the past. And while in this case it is the sharing of a collective past of the Israelites—starting with their ancestor who was a wandering Aramean—by the time that the person gets to the end of the ritual, instead of speaking in the collective voice, the offerer speaks individually: “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, Adonai, have given to me.”
Assessing our own individual past, acknowledging it and coming to terms with it, seems a healthy way to move forward as we ready ourselves to accept the gifts of our future. Judaism gives our communities collective ways to reflect on personal life experiences and our responses to them. This year, during the time of Counting the Omer—amidst the packing, the schlepping, and the stress—I have taken time out to reflect not only on the past year, but the past seven. This process helps my find a bit of closure as I look to the future that I hope will be filled with new adventures, sacred moments, and revelation.
Our cherished and wise colleague, Rabbi Cindy Enger, gave me a great tool by which to do this in her brilliant teaching when I heard her speak some weeks ago. She shared with her community a teaching by Rabbi Nancy Flam who drew from the pioneering work of a Jewish educator named Rachel Kessler (z”l).
Nancy suggested four areas to reflect on when coming to closure—in preparation for a new beginning.
- First articulate the gain: What are the gifts that you’ve received by being part of this past experience?
- Second, acknowledge the loss: Having experienced the feeling of strength and gratitude that comes with realizing the gifts of having participated in this experience, it is important to acknowledge the sadness that may come with closure.
- Next, establish personal power: Where else in my life do I have or can I create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this past experience?
- Finally, establish realistic continuity: While not denying that we are coming to a true ending, is it possible that there will be places of continuity with people and practices established as part of this experience?
This season of anticipation—of receiving our ultimate guide for taking new steps in our lives—seems especially apt for my family and me. Yet, for so many of us, as we enter the summer, we each have the opportunity to reflect on the past year, appreciate special experiences within it, and move forward with both excitement and gratitude. So if you, like me, will be awake through the wee hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, you just may have the opportunity to reflect on an experience from the past that would help you embrace the promise of an enlightened tomorrow by following these prompts:
- What I’ve received from this experience that I will always take with me is…
- What I will miss about this experience is…
- Other places where I have or can create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this experience include…
- I hope to establish realistic points of continuity by…
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.